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British Airways is still flying but who exactly is it serving?

How time flies: here’s BBH’s last big campaign for British Airways, all of six years ago.

Computer problems were one of the things these intrepid aviators didn’t need to face, the cause of the disastrous BA meltdown at Heathrow and Gatwick over the weekend. But even back in 2011 ‘To fly to serve’ seemed like BA from another era and not just because of the twirling mustachios.

British commercial aviation is a tale of two Irishmen: Willie Walsh of International Airlines Group (IAG) which now owns Iberia and Aer Lingus alongside BA and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. For a long time it’s seemed like a private duel between between the two, roundhead Walsh against cavalier O’Leary (a ferociously cost-cutting cavalier admittedly).

Most of the cards were stacked in O’Leary’s favour in that he built a huge airline based squarely on low prices and reliability in an era of mass air travel while Walsh had three legacy businesses to sort out; ‘national’ carriers from an era when air travel was, mostly, for the well-to-do.

Cut costs Ryanair style and BA is no longer the airline many of us (and certainly BBH in the campaign above) thought it was. Next week I’ll doubtless be offered a Marks & Spencer sandwich (overpriced no doubt) on my way to Stockholm. A case of two flagging brands propping up each other?

Travel on Ryanair and you’ll be offered what may well be the world’s worst cardboard container of coffee, something they’d have rejected on the Chisholm Trail in the old West. But this just seems like one of O’Leary’s little jokes and you can always take your coffee before flying (if you can find a cafe amidst all the women shoving perfume up your nose at the airport).

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In marketing these days they talk about the all-important customer journey. This too is surely some kind of joke.

So Walsh and his hapless Spanish BA CEO Alex Cruz have it all to do and, even though IAG’s share price seems to have survived their ministrations, they’re not doing all that well at the moment.

BA has just moved to new ad agency Ogilvy & Mather in a WPP-engineered deal. Ogilvy is good at supplying all the bits that clients think they need although it isn’t lighting too many creative fires these days.

BBH’s ‘To fly to serve’ was an attempt at that although only partially successful, mainly because it didn’t ring true. In these circumstances most newly-appointed agencies would consider what worked before. Saatchi’s ‘The world’s favourite airline?’ Hardly. FCB’s ‘We take more care of you?’ Pull the other one.

Maybe BA would be better putting the money into a computer system that works.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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